Walter Laqueur: Why would anyone risk living in Jerusalem today? Walter Laqueur offers a few answers.





... Walter Laqueur arrived in Jerusalem in 1938 as a 17-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, stayed until the mid-1950s and has made frequent visits ever since. As an eminent historian whose many works include "A History of Zionism" (1987), he is familiar with what he calls the "surfeit of history" in a city that has known innumerable desecrations, conquests and sieges in the 30 centuries since David made it his capital.
But in "Dying for Jerusalem," Mr. Laqueur is interested in Jerusalem's tangled and bloody past only insofar as it informs the troubled present. He draws a diffuse but humane portrait of a place that has touched him deeply. Like Saul Bellow's "To Jerusalem and Back" and Amos Elon's "Jerusalem: City of Mirrors," "Dying for Jerusalem" largely rests on impressions and reminiscences. Mr. Laqueur builds his portrait from a series of sketches of the people he came to know there. Incarnating observations in such a way helps him to avoid the overheated rhetoric that characterizes so much writing about the Middle East. Yet Mr. Laqueur's measured prose conveys a great deal of feeling.

The mood is sometimes nostalgic. A chapter on Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of kabbalah, opens into a description of the German-Jewish émigrés whose brilliant talk filled the first classes at Hebrew University and the apartments of the leafy Rehavia neighborhood. The milieu he remembers, Mr. Laqueur says, "has disappeared like ancient Yavneh or Spain of the Middle Ages or Berlin and Warsaw in the 1920s."

At other times, the mood is one of disenchantment. Mr. Laqueur observes that, because of the growing number of ultra-Orthodox residents, many of whom both do not work and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the state, Jerusalem has paradoxically become not only one of the country's poorest cities but also one of the most anti-Zionist. It now has its first ultra-Orthodox mayor.

Most often, Mr. Laqueur succumbs to pessimism. Although the psalmist calls it "a city knit together," Jerusalem is of course torn not only between ancient and modern and ultra-Orthodox and secular but most painfully between its Arab East and Jewish West. Mr. Laqueur skillfully turns the story of a Palestinian aristocrat named Musa Alami into a meditation on how Jerusalem's unique entanglements of religion and nationalism have kept it at the center of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Though Alami remembers enjoying harmony in the early part of the century with his neighbors from Jerusalem's Arabic-speaking community of Sephardic Jews, he came to feel abandoned both by the Zionist leaders he met with and by the younger Palestinian leaders, more religiously fanatical and more corrupt than their predecessors.

As Mr. Laqueur helps us to understand, the place known to Muslims simply as al-Quds (the holy) is at once a casualty and a cause of the conflict--or at least an obstacle to its resolution. This most unpeaceful city has sustained some 30 Palestinian suicide bombings since the al-Aqsa intifada broke out after Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in late 2000.

Those Israelis who respond to the violence by insisting ever more loudly that Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people, Mr. Laqueur concludes, "fail to understand that the city is already divided." The prophet Isaiah, he remarks, "said many wonderful things about Jerusalem--that for Zion's sake he will not keep silent, and that out of Zion will go forth the law. But he did not say that his right hand will forget her cunning unless the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health are located in this city."...



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